August 9, 2016, 7:56 am
While the top spot in the Western Conference seems to be fully controlled by the Golden State Warriors, the following spots seem to be relatively wide open. While the Clippers, Spurs, and Thunder have been among top teams in the conference, the landscape looks to be potentially shifting in the near future, possibly even as soon as next season.
That also may not be the case. The Clippers still have plenty of talent, the Thunder are young and still have Russell Westbrook to try to build around, and the Spurs haven’t been bad nearly two decades. So the idea of these teams remaining at or near the top of the standings in the next season isn’t unrealistic.
While I’m always afraid to bet against Russell Westbrook, the loss of Kevin Durant will likely end the Thunder’s chances to get the second spot, but anything is possible, and I still expect them to be a very competitive team. With that said, I see three obvious favorites to land the second spot:
3. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were incredible last season. They were the second best regular-season team in the NBA in a year where the best team won 73 games. LaMarcus Aldridge got more comfortable as the season went on, and Kawhi Leonard continued to show that he is one the best players in the NBA.
Going forward, San Antonio could see Leonard and Aldridge get even more comfortable together and become one of the most dominant duos in the league. Pau Gasol should help facilitate the offense and soften the blow of losing Tim Duncan, and bench players like Kyle Anderson and Patty Mills have been able to carve out useful roles for the team.
The biggest reason for optimism is likely Danny Green. His field goal percentage and three point percentage were both far lower than they had ever been during his five years under Gregg Popovich. He’s still just 29 years old, and his defense was stellar last season, so it isn’t probably isn’t related to age or injury.
His three point shooting was clearly an issue last season, and the fact that it was his only issue would lead you to believe that it could be a mechanical and therefore correctable during the off-season. He still shot 44.8% on two-point attempts, which is not too far from his career average, and both his assist percentage and turnover percentage were right around his normal level. His usage was down, but that could be due to his shooting struggles and the fact that much of the offense went through Leonard and Aldridge last season.
I would expect him to be at least average offensively next season, which would be a huge boost for their team.
There will be struggles for this team next season. They will need to find a way to anchor their defense without Tim Duncan. The opposing team’s O-Rating jumped by about 4 points when Duncan wasn’t on the court last season, and Pau Gasol will not be able to fill that gap on his own. He should be a very good replacement for Duncan in many respects, and many advanced metrics point to Gasol being a valuable defensive player last season. Opposing teams had an O-rating that was 1.3 points higher when Gasol was sitting, and his Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 3 is very high, but he won’t be the defensive presence that Duncan was.
Beyond that, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be another year older, and while the Spurs likely have enough young talent for this team to go through a relatively painless transition towards a new core, this could till provide a bump in the road big enough to keep them out of the top two in an incredibly competitive conference.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan have shown for the last few years that together they can form one of the core’s in the league. All three are still young enough to play at a high level, and both J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers took steps forward last season. If they’re healthy, this group has everything they would need to give any team trouble next season.
That seems to be a bigger question than it’s ever been. Even though Griffin returned last season, he had to end his season early with a quad injury, and that will be a big concern going forward. This team has very little depth beyond their main pieces, so injuries will be a bigger blow for them than most. Chris Paul injured his hand during the playoffs, and while that injury is far less concerning, he’s already 31 years old, and his usage of 27.1% last season was by far the highest it’s ever been in Los Angeles.
Jordan has been fairly healthy during his career, but he showed during the end of the team’s playoff series with Portland that he cannot get the job done on his own(it was actually hard to watch at times). The Clippers can survive injuries and remain near the top of the conference, but to be the second team next year they will have to stay healthy, and will likely want to address their depth issues as soon as possible.
1. Utah Jazz
I know that this seems overly optimistic, but the Jazz have so much going for them.
The Point Guard position was a huge black hole for the team last season. Trey Burke and Raul Neto both had a Box Plus Minus of -2 or less, and while Shelvin Mack was a huge upgrade for them, his BPM was -0.3 with the Jazz last season.
George Hill will be a huge upgrade on both ends of the floor. It’s hard to understate how much better he will be than any option they had last season, and for an offense that ranked 16th last season without a true starting point guard, he will be a huge boost. His ability to run an offense and space the floor will be much appreciated.
Beyond that, the Jazz were hit pretty hard with injuries last season. Gobert and Favors missed 41 games combined, and Dante Exum missed the entire season. This is unfortunately what likely caused the team to miss the playoffs last season. Having all of their players healthy should make their top 10 defense even stronger.
The Jazz also have amazing depth at every position. They have at least one player that can start at every position, and have at least one high quality backup for every starter. Their bench should rank among the best in the league, and they should also be able to weather injuries better than most teams.
Quin Snyder has shown that he is one of the best young coaches in the league, and considering how young Utah’s core is, they still have a ton of room to grow. Adding veterans like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw should help guide this team toward a very successful season. Don’t be surprised if the Jazz are one of the more dominant teams in the league next year.
June 25, 2019, 6:55 pmNikola Vucevic - C - Orlando Magic
Per Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News, the Mavs like how Nikola Vucevic fits alongside Kristaps Porzingis, but his expected salary would cost too much for the Mavs to sign.
The Mavs will enter free agency with a ton of cap space, but after the expected max contract that they'll extend to Porzingis, they may be more inclined to spread the wealth around or target Kemba Walker than committing a max contract to Vucevic. Vucevic had a career year as an All-Star for the Magic this past season, but his next destination remains a crapshoot.
Source: Dallas News
June 25, 2019, 6:38 pmJimmy Butler - SG - Philadelphia Sixers
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Rockets' ideal plan in free agency is to get Jimmy Butler by a sign-and-trade deal with the Sixers.
Butler is going to be a sought after commodity once free agency opens as the Sixers, Lakers, and others are also going to be looking to ink him to a long-term deal. Butler regained his level back to max contract level after his play during the playoffs this season. The Rockets don't have any cap space to sign Butler outright, so they'll have to get a commitment from him to take a pay cut, while also getting the Sixers to agree to help facilitate a deal. This is going to be interesting.
June 25, 2019, 5:08 pmKhem Birch - C - Orlando Magic
The Magic have extended qualifying offers to C Khem Birch and F Amile Jefferson, rendering both restricted free agents ahead of free agency which is set to begin on June 30th.
Birch, who averaged 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in just 12.9 minutes per game this past season, is seemingly a priority for the Magic to bring back, and now they'll get the opportunity to match any contracts he may fetch from other teams. Jefferson was in the G-League for the majority of the season, where he was very productive. Both may take on larger roles, should they stay with the Magic, as star C Nikola Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent.
Source: Magic PR on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 4:58 pmJR Smith - SG - Cleveland Cavaliers
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, the Lakers could eventually take a look at signing J.R. Smith should he be released by the Cavs, or traded and bought out by another team.
Smith is likely to become a free agent one way or the other by the end of the month, and the Lakers will be looking at cheap floor-spacers to fill out their roster. Smith and LeBron James are familiar with one another after winning a championship together with the Cavs, and it looks like Smith to the Lakers is a real possibility.
Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 4:00 pmKristaps Porzingis - PF - Dallas Mavericks
Shams Charania of The Athletic is reporting that the Mavs will meet with restricted free agent Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) once free agency opens on June 30th, and the team will offer him the full five-year, $158 million max contract.
This was expected ever since the Mavs traded for Porzingis mid-season while he recovered from his knee injury. Porzingis is fully expected to sign with the Mavs and become reigning ROY Luka Doncic's running mate for the foreseeable future.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 3:54 pmJordan Clarkson - PG - Cleveland Cavaliers
Cavs combo guard Jordan Clarkson changed agents and signed with Klutch Sports and Rich Paul.
Clarkson is likely to be a trade target for competitive teams ahead of next year's trade deadline, as a quality player on an expiring contract. Clarkson will enter free agency next offseason looking for the best deal possible.
Source: Joe Vardon on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 3:46 pmJulius Randle - PF - New Orleans Pelicans
Per Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks have mutual interest as free agency approaches.
The Pelicans drafted their PF of the future in Zion Williamson last week, and will seemingly let Randle walk in free agency as they are unlikely to pay him what he deserves. After a productive finish with the Lakers in 2017-18, Randle had to settle for a one-year deal from the Pelicans last summer. After another productive season on an expiring contract, it looks like at least one franchise is ready to invest in Randle as their PF of the future. Randle averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 0.9 threes to boot this past season and makes for a good mid-round selection in drafts next season if he finds himself in a similar role.
Source: The Undefeated
June 25, 2019, 3:32 pmAndre Iguodala - SF - Golden State Warriors
Speaking about Kevin Durant's injury situation during this year's playoffs, Andre Iguodala said that he fractured his left leg against the Rockets in the 2018-19 playoffs and the Warriors listed him out with a "left lateral leg contusion.”
There has been a lot of smoke in regards to how the Warriors dealt with Durant's injury, as it did not appear to be as minor as the team led the public to believe when he injured himself backpedaling after a made basket. A non-contact injury is always a major red flag, but the Warriors called Durant's initial injury a "first-grade calf strain," which is the lowest graded injury designation. Weeks later, when Durant rushed back to help his team out of a 3-1 Finals deficit, he fully ruptured his Achilles in only 12 minutes of action. This is all just speculation, but this revelation from the 2015 NBA Finals MVP is an alarming development for a franchise who could seemingly do no wrong the past half-decade. The league may take a deep-dive into these claims soon enough.
Source: NBC Sports
June 25, 2019, 3:14 pmD'Angelo Russell - PG - Brooklyn Nets
The Lakers, who are also working towards setting up meetings with a defensive specialist and a floor-spacer, have a set meeting with D'Angelo Russell when free agency opens.
The Lakers drafted Russell at #2 overall in the 2015 NBA draft and subsequently traded him to the Nets a few years ago as a way to get Timofey Mozgov's horrendous contract off their books. He has since blossomed into an All-Star selection this past season as the leader of the Nets' push back into relevancy. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Russell and the Lakers would mend their previous relationship, but it remains to be seen if anything will come of it. If it is any consolation to Russell, Magic Johnson, the man who traded Russell to the Nets, is no longer with the team.
Source: Fred Robbins on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 2:29 pmMitch Kupchak - Team - Charlotte Hornets
In what will play a major role in all personnel decisions, the Hornets are determined to avoid the luxury tax next season, per Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer.
If true, then this will have a major effect on free agency as the Hornets are unlikely to extend the supermax to Kemba Walker this summer. While Walker has said publicly that he is willing to take less than the supermax, it would be hard to see him stay with the Hornets for anything less as he is sure to garner interest from many teams with much better odds at competing for a title. The Lakers, Mavs, and Celtics are just a few of the many teams that will be looking into Walker once free agency opens up, and they all have brighter presents or futures ahead than the Hornets current outlook. There have been rumbles that Walker would head elsewhere next season for a few weeks now, and this report adds even more smoke to the fire. Free agency opens in less than a week.
Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter